In 1992 a British psychologist walked into two of Scotland’s busiest orthopedic hospitals and recruited five dozen patients for an experiment she hoped would explain how to boost the willpower of people exceptionally resistant to change.
The patients on average were sixty years old. Most of them earned less than $10,000 a year and didn’t have more than a high school degree. All of them had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries but because they were relatively poor and uneducated many had waited for their operations. They were retirees, elderly mechanics and store clerks. They were in life’s final chapters and most didn’t have the desire to pick up a new book.
Recovering from a knee or hip injury is incredibly arduous. The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones. While recovering the smallest movements like shifting in bed or flexing a joint can be excruciating. However it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they walk from surgery.
They must begin moving their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have healed or the scar tissue will clog the joint and thus destroying its flexibility. In addition if the patients don’t start exercising they risk developing blood clots. But the agony is so extreme that it’s not unusual for people to skip out of rehab sessions. Patients, particularly the elderly often refuse to comply with doctors’ orders.
The Scottish study’s participant were the types of people most likely to fail at rehabilitation. The scientist conducting the experiment wanted to see if it was possible to help them harness their willpower. She gave each participant a booklet after surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule and in the back were thirteen additional pages-one for each week-with blank spaces and instructions: “My goals for this week are_____? Write down exactly what you’re going to do. For example if you are going to go for a walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk.”
She asked patients to fill in each of those pages with specific plans. Then she compared the recoveries of those who wrote out goals with those of patients who had received the same booklets but didn’t write anything.
It seems absurd to think that giving people a few pieces of blank paper might make a difference in how quickly they recover from surgery. But when the researchers visited the patients three months later she found a striking difference between the two groups. The patients who has written plans in their booklets had started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not. They had started getting in and out of theirs chairs, unassisted, almost three times fast. They were putting on their shoes and doing the laundry, and making themselves meals quicker than the patients who hadn’t scribbled out any goals ahead of time.
The following excerpt is taken from the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
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